Setting the Stage for Bristol Rhythm: A Love Letter to Historic Downtown - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Setting the Stage for Bristol Rhythm: A Love Letter to Historic Downtown

Location, location, location! That’s one of the reasons Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is one of the most fun and unique festivals on the planet. Historic Downtown Bristol, VA-TN is a gem, and Bristol Rhythm partially exists to showcase its charm. Downtown has undergone a complete transformation over the past decade or so, with tons of locally owned breweries, restaurants, shops, galleries, high-end loft spaces, and businesses moving in and creating a vibrant energy. Investors have lovingly restored so many aging and crumbling properties, and the success of our festival helps keep businesses thriving.

Bristol born and raised, I love my hometown. I am so proud of the fine progress made downtown, and I’m so grateful to business owners who open their doors to our festival. We want to see them all succeed, and its part of BCM’s mission to be of economic benefit to the region. They provide so much light and love to what we do, so I wanted to highlight a few of those businesses here through a virtual mini-tour of our stages and venues.

Careful thought goes into the placement of our Bristol Rhythm main stages so that hey highlight important landmarks and buildings. Some indoor stages are located in venues already equipped for live performance. One thing is for certain, every stage has its own magic and distinct atmosphere. Thank you, Bristol, for providing the perfect backdrop for everything we do!

1. State Street Stage

Photo of The Bristol Sign behind State Street Stage as seen from a distance.
State Street Stage in perspective.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Eli Johnson.

The State Street Stage, haloed by the luminescent 100-year-old Bristol Sign, was once located one block up on State Street – closer to the Paramount. As audiences grew, the stage was pushed back to accommodate more people. I love this view looking down a sea of people toward the sign. It’s also a great stage for photo opps!

2. Piedmont Stage

The Piedmont Stage beside the Bristol Public Library.
Saturday night at he Piedmont Stage.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

The Piedmont Stage has also seen some transition over the years. It’s first location was in front of Burger Bar facing Stateline Bar & Grille. It was later pushed back to the corner of Goode and Piedmont. We think it has now found a final resting place! It’s located near our beloved Bristol Public Library, which underwent renovations in the 1990s. The beautiful metal sculpture archway on the corner was created for the library by internationally known fantasy artist Charles Vess, who has also designed three festival posters for Bristol Rhythm over the years.

3. Country Music Mural Stage

The Country Mural Stage and the famed mural from which it gets its name.
The Downtown Center during Bristol Rhythm.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

For the most part, the Country Music Mural Stage is dedicated to bluegrass and traditional country music. The City of Bristol, Tennessee built a stage in front of the Country Music Mural many years ago to house live music year-round. For the first few years, we utilized that stage at Bristol Rhythm. The photo opportunities were great, but the bands weren’t elevated enough to give fans a good view, and it was difficult to load equipment in and out through the crowds. The solution of an added stage here also gives festival goers more shaded seating on the original stage, plus there’s better access for the artists and sound techs with the new stage. Designed by Tim White, a local musician and producer/host of Song of the Mountains, the Country Music Mural is an important landmark in Historic Downtown Bristol.

4. Cumberland Square Park Stage

Cumberland Square Park Stage at night, haloed by twinkle lights.
Twinkle lights over Cumberland Square Park stage.
© Birthplace of Country Music.

Nothing beats an evening set of music at Cumberland Square Park! The City of Bristol, Virginia constructed this massive permanent stage for live music events year-round, and we love it! Families attending the festival flock to this stage for the shade it provides, and it isn’t unusual to see someone tying up a hammock between the trees! The park also serves as a memorial to our service men and women. The impressive sculptures depicting each branch of our Armed Forces and an eternal flame stand proudly below a genuine AH-1 Cobra helicopter that once flew in Vietnam.

5. The Paramount Stage

The majestic Paramount Stage.
The Paramount during Radio Bristol’s Farm & Fun Time.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Billie Wheeler.

Paramount Bristol is the crown jewel of Historic Downtown. Originally opened in 1931, this gorgeous art deco gem went through some hard times in the late 1960s and 1970s as Bristol’s downtown fell into decline. Sadly, the theater closed its doors in 1979. It was saved by the nonprofit Paramount Foundation and reopened in 1991. Today it is a thriving performing arts center and a beautiful venue for live music! We are so fortunate to have such an amazing venue during Bristol Rhythm; it’s the ultimate listening room experience!

6. The Cameo Theatre

The Ruen Brothers performing on The Cameo Theatre Stage.
The Ruen Brothers set at The Cameo, 2019.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Amy Shumaker.

The Cameo is back! Established as a vaudeville theater in 1925, The Cameo Theatre ranks among the 15 oldest in the state of Virginia. A long-awaited restoration of this 550-seat beauty has been made by owner Brent Buchanan, and he plans to host a mix of live entertainment and films. The sound in this space for live music is lush, and it has an amazing balcony space for taking in shows. Not a bad seat in the house!

7. Near Moore Stage

Sally & George perform for crowd at the Near Moor Stage.
Sally & George on the Near Moore Stage Bristol Rhythm 2017.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Sarah Mast.

Hidden in a small parking lot between two buildings, the Near Moore Stage is named such because, well, it’s near Moore Street! Cozy, with just the right amount of shade and ambiance, it is formerly known as the Eatz on Moore Street Stage because it was once located on the tiny street in front of Eatz on Moore Street restaurant. Hands-down the best soul food in the Tri-Cities, I highly recommend Mark and Lisa Canty’s barbecue or catfish plated with collards, mac’n’cheese, and sweet cornbread – and don’t forget their homemade banana pudding! You can grab it to go and picnic at the stage or enjoy the music from an outdoor table top at Eatz. There is nothing quite like Near Moore at twilight!

8. 6th Street Stage

The 6th Street Stage during a popular set.
The 6th Street Stage.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

The 6th Street Stage is among the newest at Bristol Rhythm, located on the “Tennessee side” on the narrow, one-way street for which it is named. Located near Mountain Empire Comics and Top Hat Magic, this is what I like to call the “anything goes” stage – meaning any type of band could be playing on this stage at any time. Stadium seating has been added, and Lisa Martin’s Bank Street café provides a lovely beverage garden stage-side. Her chicken salad croissants and crab cakes are also amazing! Sinful Chicago-style deep dish pizza is served across the way at The Angry Italian by Certified Executive Chef Keith Yonker; we recommend calling it in early as prep time takes around 45 minutes. Worth the wait!

9. 7th Street Stage/Dance Tent

7th Street Stage/Dance Tent at night shows off the Bristol logo projected on the ceiling of tent.
The “light show” under the 7th Street Tent.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Sarah Mast.

Also a newer stage, the 7th Street Stage has morphed quite a bit over the past few years. We’ve now merged it with the Dance Tent to create a fun atmosphere where bands and fans are protected from the elements while they groove. Its located beside the century-old L.C. King Manufacturing Co., family-owned in Bristol for four generations. We highly recommend browsing the racks for some authentic Pointer Brand clothing. It’s become the unofficial outfitter of festival musicians, as they flock to its showroom every year in search of cool duds.

10. O’Mainnin’s Pub & Grill

A relaxing set at O'Mainnin's back patio stage.
The cozy back patio at O’Mainnin’s. Raccoon sightings happen here!
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

Out back at O’Mainnin’s Pub & Grill you’ll find a little creek side oasis complete with Tiki hut and an eclectic mix of music. I love the dive-bar vibe at O’Mainnin’s – and I mean that as a high compliment! It’s the after-hours hangout for local restaurant industry folk and night-cappers, and owner Dave Manning and his staff are some of the finest people you’ll ever meet. Bonus: they have a jukebox!

11. Machiavelli’s Outdoor Tent

Annabelle's Curse during a night time performance under the Machiavelli's Outdoor Tent.
Annabelle’s Curse, Bristol Rhythm ’18.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Billie Wheeler.

The Machiavelli’s Outdoor Tent is an extension of the 5th Street restaurant of the same name. This tent is always hoppin’ and it’s just steps away from the Paramount, Theatre Bristol, and State Street Stages. I call it the “distraction” stage because I always get sucked in to whatever amazing performance is going on there when passing by. Fun fact: the first year St. Paul & the Broken Bones played the festival, they performed under this tent.

12. Machiavelli’s Indoors

An enthusiastic crowd, Machiavelli's Indoor Stage.
Machiavelli’s Indoors.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Evan McGurrin.

In addition to the outdoor tent, Machiavelli’s hosts an intimate indoor stage. Amazing restaurant owners Dave and Val Jun, along with their kind staff, man the taps and fire the tastiest brick oven pizzas ever! Our offices are right across the street and we can’t resist the Italian nachos! Sometimes we ask for Italian nacho toppings on a pizza – SO. GOOD! – and we’re big fans of the Margherita pizza and Mediterranean pasta. Machiavelli’s is one of those places that makes you feel right at home. So grateful for good neighbors!

13. Theatre Bristol

A packed house for Sally & George, Theatre Bristol.
Another Sally & George performance, Bristol Rhythm 2017.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

Theatre Bristol has been an institution in our community since 1965 when it was established as a children’s theater. The intimate space seats 100 people, perfect for an intimate performance, and larger performances are often moved to the Paramount next door. Generations of Bristolians have grown up with Theatre Bristol, and Theatre Bristol continues to educate children in the wonders of live theater year-round. This space has been witness to hundreds of great performances over the years; it’s very dear to our hearts!

14. Stateline Bar & Grille

The crowd at Stateline enjoying tunes by Logan Fritz.
Logan Fritz, Bristol Rhythm ’18.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Adam Martin.

Stateline Bar & Grille has been an anchor to State Street since 2002. The building’s restoration was among the first restaurant projects happening on State Street during a pivotal time of investment, and owners Annette Estes and Amy Booher helped set the bar high for other restaurateurs coming in with their business acumen and work ethic. It’s a terrific place to sit down and enjoy a great meal while taking in live music during the festival! The woodwork inside is craftsmanship at its finest. The gorgeous bar, mirrors and all, were purchased by Fred Bartlett for his Rockefeller’s Oyster Bar at this location in the 1990s. He bought it from a downtown bank that was closing. Workers literally rolled the bar down State Street from its former location.

15. Borderline Billiards

A full house at Borderline Billiards.
From the archives! If Birds Could Fly, Bristol Rhythm ’13 at Borderline.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Brandon Reece.

Borderline Billiards is owned by WPBA billiards champion Janet Atwell, and lots of love has gone into this venue over the years. On regular business days, the pool tables are open to friendly competition, but during the festival they are covered so patrons can enjoy the music. For the past couple of years, Borderline has run a beverage garden behind the building and beside the 7th Street Stage/Dance Tent. A classy alternative to the stereotypical “pool hall,” Borderline is a family establishment with 9′ Brunswick Gold Crown tables where one can order from the menu, throw darts, or play ping pong. A fantastic and fun addition to Downtown Bristol!

16. Quaker Steak & Lube

Band performs under Corvette mounted on ceiling at Quaker Steak.
Daniel Miller performs at Quaker Steak & Lube, Bristol Rhythm ’18.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

Yes. That is a Corvette mounted to the ceiling above the band. Quaker Steak & Lube is one of the few chain restaurants located downtown, and this franchise is owned by locals Jeff Tickle, Blair Jones, and J. J. Gillenwater of the Bristol-based real estate investment firm The Albatross Group. The automotive-inspired theme restaurant offers a decor of vintage cars and garage memorabilia, and hosts bike nights throughout the year. The hot wings are their specialty, fuel to get you revved up between or during sets.

17. Studio Brew

Audience upstairs at Studio Brew listening to Wise Old River.
Wise Old River performs to a packed house upstairs at Studio Brew,
Bristol Rhythm 2017.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Sarah Mast.

Only a smidgen off the beaten path, but well worth a brisk walk past Cumberland Square Park, Master Brewer Erich Allen’s Studio Brew was among the first craft breweries to locate downtown, opening the tap for a wave of others to follow. Artisans of the trade, Studio Brew renovated a historic train freight warehouse built in 1909 on Moore Street where they brew, bottle, seal, and ship their recipes. Studio Brew has expanded distribution throughout Tennessee, Virginia, and soon into South Carolina. Their tapas and brew pairings are only matched by the classy, but warm, establishment where you can peer into the brewing room while sampling a flight of robust and tasty recipes.

18. Shanghai Stage

Chris Jamison performs at Shanghai Stage.
Chris Jamison at Shanghai Stage, Bristol Rhythm ’17.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by M. Taylor,
King University Dept. of Digital Media Art & Design.

Shanghai Chinese Restaurant has been family owned and operated by Xian Chen and his wife Ying since 1996. The Chens and their three young children have worked hard to create the friendliest space possible for their yummy dishes, and through the years Shanghai has been voted the best Chinese restaurant in Bristol. An expansion was made in recent years to accommodate their loyal and new customers, and we highly recommend the buffet! You’ll find it a calming atmosphere to take in an acoustic act or singer-songwriter while noshing on dumplings and rice during Bristol Rhythm.

19. Bloom Café & Listening Room

Andrew Alli performs at Bloom Cafe & Listening Room.
Andrew Allie performs at Bloom BR18, its first year as a festival stage.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Adam Martin.

The newest addition to our little downtown family, Bloom Cafe & Listening Room is a cozy coffee shop where live music and art converge amongst vintage furnishings and espresso-based drinks. Open seven days a week, Bloom hosts fun trivia nights and offers the community a chill place to meet up with friends or write the great American novel. I highly recommend stopping here for breakfast!

20. Birthplace of Country Music Museum

The Performance Theater at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
The 100-seat Performance Theater at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
© Birthplace of Country Music

Though technically not a stage at Bristol Rhythm, the “acoustically perfect” Performance Theater at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum hosts a number of Radio Bristol Sessions the community can attend without a festival ticket. These programs are broadcast live on the air in the Bristol area at 100.1 FM and online at Lineups for these pop-up programs are announced closer to festy; be sure and watch social media for updates! The Indigo Girls performed a Session when they performed in 2017! With only 100 seats available, you’ll want to line up early for these intimate shows!

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